Friday, October 05, 2012

'Looper' is a time travel film full of wit, action and surprises

Writer/director Rian Johnson's "Looper" is a tricky film to discuss. It is a densely packed piece of science fiction with intricate layers. Once you understand the film's logic, it is easy to follow. In terms of the characters' objectives, the plot is simple and direct, but to explain it in too great of detail ruins the numerous surprises the film has to offer.

"Looper" is set in 2044, a time in which time travel doesn't exist, but 30 years into the future it does. The process is illegal, but the mob uses time travel to send back people they want to dispose of. Men known as loopers are hired to be at a certain place to kill these people sent back in time. The victims are always bound with a hood over their head.

These men are called loopers because eventually the old versions of themselves will be sent back and the younger version kills the older. Their services are no longer needed, the loop is closed and the looper gets a big pay day, but he is always aware that in 30 years he'll be killed.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a drug-addicted looper saving up is money to leave for France for his retirement. Things become complicated when Joe's older version (Bruce Willis) is sent back without a hood and young Joe hesitates at the trigger. Now old Joe is on the loose and young Joe's boss (Jeff Daniels) wants both Joes dead.

That is merely the set up. Johnson's script goes to dark and unexpected places. Old Joe is on a mission in 2044 to protect a loved one in the future. What this mission entails is the latest thing you'd expect a character played by Bruce Willis to do.

The film builds to a final confrontation on a farm run by Emily Blunt and her young son (Pierce Gagnon). Blunt's character doesn't appear until late in the film, but is more than an obligatory damsel in distress or love interest.

Blunt's character made a terrible mistake that she's trying to rectify. She doesn't play the character as weak, but strong and resourceful. How she becomes entangled with the two Joes should not be spoiled, but it packs an emotional wallop that no one is likely to see coming.

Time travel stories are usually filled with paradoxes that create plot holes. Johnson attempts to address that issue in his approach to time travel. One neat trick is that young Joe's action in the present instantly changes old Joe's memories. Any injuries that young Joe endures appear as scars on old Joe. Johnson uses this in clever ways.

The film also gets to play with the question: What if you got to talk to your older self? There's a great scene in a diner between Levitt and Willis. Their conversation is direct. There isn't much time for philosophical musings. Instead there is a barded exchange as the older, wiser Joe literally looks back on his more foolish, younger self. Much of the dialogue of the scene is simply meant to give the audience plot information, but it is written in such a smart way and performed so perfectly by Levitt and Willis that the scene has a real spark.

Both actors are stellar throughout. Levitt, who starred in Johnson's first film "Brick," a hard boiled film noir set in high school, brings a hardened, brooding intensity to young Joe, but also adds subtleties as he slowly connects to emotions he had long disconnected from.

Willis, who has explored time travel before in "12 Monkeys," brings his expected kick-butt action persona to the table, but doesn't merely walk through this role. This is a dramatically heavy role and Willis reminds that in addition to being a great action star he can also be a great actor.

Johnson borrows themes, visuals and motifs from other time travel movies, most notably "The Terminator" and "12 Monkeys," but the film doesn't feel like a retread of previous films. He has fully rendered his world and its rules. The film feels fresh in its approach to time travel.

"Looper" is not merely about the mechanism of its plot though. It is deeply grounded in emotion and ultimately the story is driven forward by real and relatable emotions. The conclusion finds a way to close the loop on the story in a way that is surprising, satisfying and will lead to a lot of discussion afterward.

No comments: